When introduced in the nineteenth century, railroads were one of humankind's most transformational technologies. Like similar transformations such as the printing press and the automobile, railroads did more than advance technology. They fundamentally altered the entire social and cultural fabric, including basic relationships between people and time, distance, geography, class, and gender. Railroads also introduced new types of crime and criminal organization to the nineteenth-century West, and indeed to the entire nation and globe. These criminal activities quickly spread across wide geographic expanses. Railroads and society at large responded by altering the measures of social control through new forms of law enforcement, only one of which was the creation of private railroad-company police forces. In our own era, similar revolutionary information and communications technologies erupted upon a cultural and institutional world woefully unprepared to deal with them. As was true for nineteenth-century railroading, the results today have been new, ever-evolving forms of crime that plague individuals, companies, institutions, and governments, while baffling ill-equipped law enforcement agencies. The internet spammers, hackers, phishers, stalkers, swindlers, pedophiles, money launderers, identity thieves, election fixers, and cyberterrorists of today share a lineage with the railroad pickpockets, arsonists, ticket forgers, train robbers and wreckers, and hatchet-wielding hoboes of yesterday. Examining the railroads' transformation of crime and violence can shed light on today's tribulations with information technology, as well as on possible ways to deal with them.
“Hear That Lonesome [Police] Whistle Blow”: The Southern Pacific Company and the Railroad Crime Revolution, 1860s–1940s
richard j. orsi is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. A graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, he received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has published articles and book reviews in California History, Pacific Historian, Agricultural History, Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Pacific Historical Review, Western Historical Quarterly, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, and Oregon Historical Quarterly. He is the author of A List of References for the History of Agriculture in California (Agricultural History Center, UC Davis, 1974) and Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850–1930 (University of California Press, 2005). He is editor emeritus of California History. He has coedited Yosemite and Sequoia: A Century of California National Parks (University of California Press, 1993), other anthologies of essays on historical themes of California, and the California History Sesquicentennial Series (1998–2003), four volumes of essays by leading scholars interpreting early California history, copublished by the University of California Press and the California Historical Society.
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Richard J. Orsi; “Hear That Lonesome [Police] Whistle Blow”: The Southern Pacific Company and the Railroad Crime Revolution, 1860s–1940s. California History 1 May 2020; 97 (2): 27–58. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2020.97.2.27
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